Cognitive problems of elderly dogs

Sophie is a lovely Golden retriever who has just passed her 16th birthday, making her over a hundred in “dog years”. She has slowed down in many ways, with arthritis being the main physical problem (she is on daily tablets to help her with this). She also has some behavioural changes – the equivalent of “doggy Alzheimer’s”, which has been increasingly recognised as being a problem in elderly pets.

Cognitive dysfuntion in older dogs

So-called “cognitive behaviour” means aspects such as knowing the layout of a home, remembering people, places and activities, and house training. It’s common in older dogs to see changes in the ability to remember these things.
The signs that owners often notice include house-training problems, memory loss, disorientation, confusion, staring at walls, wandering aimlessly, getting stuck in corners, sleep disturbances (waking at the wrong time, sleeping unusually deeply or pacing the home in the early hours), restlessness, barking, separation anxiety, panting, drooling, obsessive licking, etc.

These signs start off as minor changes and deterioration takes place gradually. Owners often do not become aware of the changes until they are quite advanced.

These changes are very, very common in older dogs, as part of the “normal” aging process. One study at the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine looked at 69 dogs: 32% of the 11-year old dogs were affected by this syndrome and 100% of the dogs 16 years of age older were affected at some level.

Isn’t this just normal aging?

The high frequency with which the syndrome is seen in older dogs does not make the it healthy or “normal”. Some studies have shown that dogs affected by this syndrome show deposition of amyloid (a protein) in their brains in patterns very similar to the amyloid plaques found in the brains of human Alzheimer’s patients. This type of cognitive dysfunction is often associated with the depletion of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, again suggesting that there is a physical reason for the changes.

Can it be treated?

Various treatments are possible, including drugs and dietary modifications, but the main issue here does seem to be “advancing age”, and we all know that there’s nothing fundamental that can be done to prevent this.

Dog owners should be sure to get their elderly pets checked by their own veterinarians – perhaps twice a year once they go over thirteen years of age. Cognitive dysfunction is a challenge, but there are ways of dealing with challenges. Often small changes to lifestyles and to the dog’s environment can make the last lap of the race of life more enjoyable.

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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.

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